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Ten Habits of Successful Academic Administrators: Part Three

Leadership and Management

Ten Habits of Successful Academic Administrators: Part Three

Successful Academic Administrators

This is part three of a three-part series. Part one appeared in the October issue; part two appeared in November.


For the past two months, we have examined some of the key habits of successful academic administrators. This final installment shares some additional habits.

8. Successful administrators are committed to global improvement.

This recommendation means that the administrator is tuned into everything that is important to the institution and seeks to move forward on each issue that is relevant to his or her domain. To find these, the administrator consults the institution’s mission, vision, and values statements and goes through the goals of the institutional strategic plan. Although not every goal is appropriate for every department or even every school, those that are in the school and department plans are targets for the attention of top administrators from chair to dean.

First-time chairs may not understand this concept at the outset and will sometimes focus on just a few goals, which may be because their transition from the “I, me, my” mind-set of a faculty member to the “we, us, our” way of thinking is not yet complete. It may also be a reflection of the first-time chair’s focus on the poor condition of those areas identified or of his or her personal interest. Regardless of the initial targets for improvement, new chairs will soon realize that they must encourage progress on all relevant goals. Deans, if they have served as chairs, must now expand the scope of the “we, us, our” rhetoric so that multiple disciplines are included, whereas a provost must deal with an “us” of multiple schools. Talented administrators immediately grasp the concept of contributing to and improving all the major goals/factors identified by campus, the school, and beyond as important.

9. Successful administrators are effective communicators at every level.

This issue is complex because most administrators are in the middle. They sit between two individuals or groups that often have different knowledge, political views, and candor restrictions and yet must transmit accurate information in both directions.

Let us first consider the critically important communication with faculty. Although most would ascribe this responsibility to chairs, it is often a characteristic of effective deans to regularly communicate with faculty. The message, motivation, and mode may vary between the chair and dean, but together, they can keep the faculty well informed at many levels.

A rule of thumb for a chair communicating with faculty is to use multiple types of media to distribute information. For example, if it is important to the department to achieve specific enrollment goals, the chair might prepare an enrollment report for the first fall faculty meeting. It would be wise to also include the data on enrollment in the agenda and perhaps repeat it in an open report to campus or in an alumni newsletter. The main justification for redundancy is that faculty members are busy people, and such data may not be of real interest to them at that first meeting.

An informal but effective chair communication device is to meander around the department, stopping in at open faculty doors. Much can be learned about individual faculty at these impromptu meetings. In fact, all administrators should try to do this. Imagine the impact on faculty if, one day a month, the provost walked the campus seeking random contacts with faculty. It would afford a rich opportunity to learn, exchange ideas, explain positions, and gain a grassroots feel for what drives the institution.

Thus far, I have portrayed communication as top down, but there is equally important information that moves upward (Lees, 2014). Alert chairs will be quick to pass items of good news to the dean, who, in turn, should pass them up the line. Responsible chairs will be equally quick in alerting the dean to unresolved complaints that may be appealed to his or her office. In some cases, chairs must convey the sentiments of the faculty to the dean in ways that are honest without being provocative or alienating. Chairs must also function as disciplinary experts for deans who are from unrelated disciplines. Good chairs, who also play the role of department advocates, must combine these roles so that trust builds between the chair and the dean.

Finally, a critical component of communication that is evident in skilled administrators is the art of listening. Listening is not only a mechanism for collecting information but also a way to demonstrate respect for the individuals present. In circumstances involving a major dispute with high emotional charge and serious accusations between two parties, a good administrator neither takes action nor forms an opinion until listening to both parties and to relevant third parties. Regardless of how the dispute is resolved, both parties will know that, at the least, someone took the time to hear their side of the story.

10. Successful administrators are prepared for their next position.

When chairs or deans complete their terms, they either move on to higher-level positions or to the same position at a larger institution, or they return to the faculty unless they are eligible for full retirement. Someone who will move to a higher-level position or make a parallel move to a more prestigious institution has generally planned the move well, and success requires experience and accomplishments that go beyond mere effective department management or steering a school for a few years (Lees, 2015).

This type of preparation involves gaining experience in areas that will be part of the next step but will also set the individual apart from most others in the current position. Wise administrators will be careful that this extra work outside the unit does not detract from the time and effort necessary to lead and manage the unit. A way to accomplish this is by careful delegation to well-chosen faculty and staff at the department and school levels. In today’s higher education world, some of the highly desired administrative traits are knowledge and skills in fundraising, including philanthropy; diversifying the faculty, staff, and student body; online education; developing partnerships; promoting collaboration; and enrollment management. Being able to thoughtfully address topics like these in a letter of application for a deanship or provost position and being able to list strategies and successes should get the attention of the search committee.



Part one of this series considered administrative skills that are developed or sharpened through reflection rather than displayed in overt action. Establishing personal credibility takes time, but losing it can occur with great swiftness. The road to reestablishing it can be painfully slow. Because it is subject to personal definition or interpretation, fairness or equity in dealing with faculty, students, and other groups is facilitated by having policies that define the parameters of the issues. Practicing the process of framing when promoting a change agenda can help avoid undue problems and even failure of the initiative. Top administrators will say that it is well worth the time and trouble. Finally, talented administrators, especially those who have ambitions to move up the administrative ladder, will regularly assess and validate their support level both from above and below. This support can be a key to success in landing the next position.

Part two covered the notion that top administrators are effective, at least in part, because they work at their craft. Thus, they are attentive to their professional development through the literature, conference attendance, and networking. The role of administrators in celebrating individual and collective accomplishments was presented as a way to reward and encourage excellence. Top administrators are also excellent cheerleaders. Finally, effective administrators are not only in touch with what is happening in their local domains but also have their ears to the ground to anticipate and prepare for new challenges or opportunities. They see the big picture.

In part three, the (global) commitment to improve or make progress on all components of the unit’s mission was presented as an administrative expectation. Successful administrators are able to communicate in all directions using multiple means. They are also good recipients of information (i.e., listeners). The final behavior of administrators planning to ascend several rungs of the administrative ladder is preparing for the next position by assuming some of its responsibilities or by seeking experience in some of the activities associated with the position sought.


Lees, N. D. (2014). Considerations for successfully managing up. Academic Leader, 30(7), 1, 6.

Lees, N. D. (2015). Planning priorities for leaving the chair position. Academic Leader, 31(6), 2, 5, 8.

­­­N. Douglas Lees, PhD, is associate dean for planning and finance, professor, and former chair of biology in the School of Science at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.


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